Farmer, worker, soldier, Sisi: What the songs for the New Suez Canal all have in common

In keeping with Egypt’s long and storied tradition of immediately commemorating national projects with a flurry of new artistic works, the New Suez Canal launches with an ecstatic soundtrack of at least 27 songs that were produced over the past year, with even more on the way.

Some were commissioned by the Defense Ministry, others by private production companies, while still others were self-produced by young artists with limited budgets — but all celebrate the extension to the canal and the hope it brings to Egypt, mother of the world.

As I watched video after video and listened to song after song, by the end of my waterway playlist I found myself unable to distinguish between them — they have all converged into one long tribute with endless ships passing by in the background. While their credits list different names, the songs are all based on similar beats and lyrics, while the video clips endlessly recycle the same visual tropes.

Only one tune stood out, which I was surprised to find on the list, in the first place — Mohamed Mounir’s Fat El-Keteer (The Majority has Passed). Though Mounir is a mainstream artist, in the past he’s swerved a little toward the “alternative” side of things. A video hasn’t been released for Mounir’s song, the lyrics of which don’t address the canal specifically, but rather praise Egypt at large. But still, compared to the rest of Mounir’s music, this is pretty poor quality.

This poor quality sets the tone for the rest of the songs about the Suez Canal extension. Given the repetitiveness of this swarm of songs, it’s perhaps more instructive to look at the various tropes that they have in common to understand their collective message, rather than to examine them one by one.

Building the New Canal, building the Old Canal

Construction footage appears in every single one of these music videos. And it’s the exact same footage in almost all of them, with only minimal exceptions. Like some kind of endless recursive loop, we see the same loaders digging through the canal, the same ships passing through the existing canal, the same aerial footage of the water, and the same workers in helmets looking at plans in song after song.

Vlogger Wael al-Sedeki — who recently rose to notoriety after he was sentenced to a year in prison in absentia for lewd behavior in his music video for Seeb Eedy — directed and sang Bahebek Ya Biladi (I love you my country) with another unknown singer, Kenzy Kazzaz, back in 2014 after the project was announced. Exceptionally, the duo actually traveled to the canal and shot their own footage, which features the pair singing at the construction site, posing awkwardly with military officers and singing on the ferry from Port Said to Port Fouad.

The lyrics — by a mysteriously anonymous songwriter who is not credited in the video — foregrounds love for Egypt, “the best country in the world,” and how good its people are. Sedeki and Kazzazz encourage people to develop and change themselves, so that Egypt can develop and change, too. At the end of the song, Kenzy says to the camera, “I hope the song gives you hope in tomorrow, like Sisi gave us.”

The only other artist to play around with the stock canal footage in a slightly different way is the unknown singer Hesham Abdalla. In the video for his song, “Suez Canal,” which was posted to YouTube on July 31 — with a lackluster response, only garnering fewer than 1,500 views so far —  a dancing Abdalla is inserted in front of the clips of the canal that everyone else is using, changing his shirt with every cut. Animated infographs also randomly appear.

Lyrics by Shafik Karem talk about how we were able to split the land in two. Listening to the song is almost like listening to a distant, regime-supporting relative talk about the canal: “The army promised and delivered, in a short span of time …  And the people come to kiss both its cheeks.”

The song and music clip were produced by Winners Media, an unknown company that only has one other video on its YouTube account — a Mother’s Day operetta performed by young singers.

Mansourin (Victorious) by established singers Medhat Saleh and Khaled Agag (who performed in the 2013 operetta paying tribute to the army, Teslam al-Ayady) starts off with archival footage of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalizing the canal in 1956, juxtaposed with footage of Sisi during the expansion in 2014.

The song is composed by Amr Mostafa, one of the most vocal supporters of former President Hosni Mubarak during the January 2011 revolution. Mostafa is also the composer of the operetta commissioned for the canal’s opening ceremony, which is to be performed live by Egyptian pop icons Hakeem, Ehab Tawfik, Sherine Abdel-Wahab, Angham and Nadia Mostafa.

The pop track recognizes God’s work in Egypt’s victory, and proudly highlights the Egyptians taking part in the canal’s construction. It uses the same animated infographs employed by Abdalla to explain the science behind the expansion, along with footage of work on the canal.

Muslim, Christian, farmer, worker

Many of the songs celebrate not only the Suez Canal, but the Egyptians who managed to raise a large sum of the budget needed for the new expansion.

Distilling Egypt’s vast and diverse populace into a narrow range of archetypes — the Egyptian is either Muslim or Christian, and has one of four professions: worker, farmer, fisherman or soldier — is a representative mode that’s already well-established in advertising, and many of these patriotic music videos follow that tendency, as well.

Celebrated musician Aly El-Haggar just released the Defense Ministry-produced Ana al-Masry (I am the Egyptian) last week. Like its predecessors, the video clip features the new Suez Canal and images from its construction, but that’s not the focus of the lyrics. Instead, Haggar sings about the farmer, the worker, the soldier, the sailor and the fisherman, as the corresponding images play in perfect coordination.

The video deals in clichés — Haggar also uses backdrops of the Pyramids, the Citadel, the Nile and Feyal temple.

The song’s lyrics, by poet Mohamed Abdel-Gawad, are strictly patriotic. The words list all of the achievements of the Egyptian people, from digging the canal in the 19th century to winning the 6th of October War, among others. The song also looks forward to the future, and how the Egyptian man will build it (not a single woman appears in the video, or in the production team credits at the end).

Lebanese singer Fady al-Badr joins the party with Allah ya Masr Allah (Wow, Egypt, Wow), a non-commissioned work published on YouTube by the privately owned media outlet Youm7. The video for the upbeat and celebratory song stays true to all the Egyptian cliches: the Church and the Mosque, the Nile, the felucca, the Pyramids, Khan al-Khalili and folk music. Though it never directly engages with the new canal in any footage or lyrics, the timing of its release this week ties it to current events.

Ahmed Gamal, a young Egyptian pop star, released Besmellah (In the Name of God) this week, another tune composed by Amr Mostafa, with lyrics by Tamer Hussein. No video clip has been released, but the ballad’s lyrics pay homage to all those who participated in bringing the canal to life. It salutes every “worker, engineer and farmer” and every expatriate who returned to Egypt to invest their energy in the country. The song also bows to the people who participated in crowdfunding for the canal.

Misr Shoryan El-Hayat (Egypt is the Vein of Life) is another Defense Ministry commission. Written by Mostafa al-Shaer and sung by Khaled Mostafa, the clip shows footage from work on the canal, and sings about the boats that used to have to slow down as they approached Suez, but are now are able to pass smoothly through the waterway. He sings about farmers and fishermen, and calls Egypt the land of the Pharos against a backdrop of the pyramids and sphinx.

In praise of Sisi

No Suez Canal music video would be complete with at least a cameo from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The majority of the songs feature snippets from his speeches, footage of his visit to the construction site and images of him with children inaugurating the construction.

In one such video, the pop band Mix Team calls on the people to stand hand-in-hand for Egypt’s future:

In another Defense Ministry production, Mahmoud al-Esseily sings alongside the star Carmen Soliman in 10/10. The video clip is filmed on the streets as the pop stars go out to take selfies with people, as the obligatory footage of the canal’s construction is inserted into Facebook profile templates.

“Normally we are living like princes, but in this time, our armies are spreading,” they sing alongside footage of Sisi and army personnel meeting world leaders like Valdimir Putin and Angela Merkel.

Bokra Tehla (Tomorrow Will be Better, another commission from the Defense Ministry) starts off with dramatic music and Sisi solemnly intoning: “We won’t leave it, we won’t lose it, and we won’t let anyone have the ability to lose it.”

The song, by Nadia Mostafa and Mohamed El-Helw, stars Sisi as he greets children at the canal, meets the workers and waves to the people on the other side of the passage. The song also talks about the cooperation between the army and the people as it recycles footage of protests and soldiers in planes.

“Congratulations, we have won over the traitors,” Mostafa sings as video clips of Muslim Brotherhood protests and bombings appear in the background.

Perhaps the one artist who stands out most is Shaabi musician Shaaban Abdel Raheem, who has produced not one, but two songs and videos for the New Suez Canal project. Both tunes are based on the same melody he’s been working with for 20 years. The first was released in 2014 when the project launched (below), and the second, Awel Helm Ethaqaq (The First Dream Came True), appeared just this week.

In the first, Abdel Raheem encouraged people to donate to the canal. He goes to an internet cafe and hits young men with a stick, telling them to get off Facebook and get a job. He then goes on to praise the Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for standing by Egypt as the video clip shows footage of Gulf State leaders meeting with Sisi, then goes on to scrutinize Obama and the Muslim Brotherhood.

There are several other music videos that were produced this week, and still others that will be released after the opening gala. All blow the project completely out of proportion. It seems we will be seeing hundreds more of these types of cultural productions in the coming year — so look forward to seeing more images of the soldier, the worker and the farmer as they perform their useful functions under the benign gaze of Sisi, the leader who will bring these productive citizens into the future. 

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist

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